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We Are All Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno died yesterday morning.

For 50 years, he was a god of college football; he may be the best college football coach of all time. While coaching, he not only won more games than anybody, but his Penn State team produced 250 NFL players, went undefeated five times, finished in the top 25 over 35 times and won two national championships. He did all of this while producing a score of academic all-Americans and having one of the highest graduation rates of any football programs in the country—certainly better than any program that was actually good at football.

In this way, none of us are like Joe Paterno. Not at all. He was a once-in-a-lifetime legend. He was better than us. Few, if any of us, are as good at what we do as he was good at what he did. He was special. And what was particularly special about him is that he was such an amazing coach and leader while coming off like a regular person. That’s not easy.

He was so great that I think the ultimate story about him will eventually outshine the awful ugliness of a child molestation scandal that happened right under his nose—on his watch, by his coordinator, on his turf. You know why I’m OK with this?

We are all Joe Paterno.

Hundreds of thousands of children are molested right under our noses, on our watch, in our country, in other countries—and only a few people are out there fighting for them. They are rare. They are as rare on the earth as Joe Paterno was rare on the football field. This is tragic. Sure, few of us may have someone we are supervising do what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing to kids on the campus of Penn State. But I don’t think that absolves us from the real responsibility of advocating and fighting on behalf of victimized kids everywhere.

We know it’s happening. We know they’re being raped. We know they’re being forced to do unthinkable things. We know they’re being bought and sold like property in record numbers all over the world. We are all witnesses to what some people say is the height of human trafficking in the history of the world.

But we’re all too busy, too frightened and too overwhelmed; full of too many excuses to help even one child escape abuse. You may be coming up with an excuse right now as to why you are not like Joe Paterno, but you are. If Paterno is ugly, then you are ugly. Does that make it right? Of course not. We’re all wrong and we are all missing the mark on this issue—just like Paterno did.

Joe Paterno passed the responsibility of standing up for victimized children off to other people at Penn State. Legally, that was just fine, but morally he dropped the ball, and his legacy will pay a real price for this. However, you and I pass this ball like a hot potato every single day. While we wait for other people to free slaves, while we wait for other people to stand against perpetrators of sex crimes against kids, more kids are harmed—on our watch.

If it is true that Joe Paterno is a bad man for not doing more (and maybe it is), then it is true for all of us. It smacks of self-righteousness for us to blast him for not doing enough to protect children from abuse, because we know we aren’t doing enough either. Even today, people have told me, “If I was Joe Paterno, I would have done something to stand up for those kids.”

The truth is that you don’t know what you would do if you were Joe Paterno because you are not Joe Paterno. In general, people greatly exaggerate what they would do under the greatest pressure. You don’t have to worry what you would have done if you were Joe, but you and I have a chance to risk it all to stand up for kids that are being abused today—and we aren’t.

Shaun King, a techie-humanitarian, is the founder of HopeMob, a brand new social media charity platform launching in March of 2012. His social good projects have been featured in O Magazine, on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and on the front page of the Wall Street Journal; they have raised over $5 million for charity and received over 100 million hits on the web. This article was adapted from his blog with permission.

What do you think of Shaun's piece? For another response, check out "Why I Am Not Joe Paterno" and join the discussion.

33 Comments

reid buck

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reid buck commented…

Thank you for writing this. I think this shows the hypocrisy of a lot of people who have a "Holier Than Thou" attitude. Its easy to judge from the outside looking in, just like hindsight is always 20/20. I am a big college football fan and die hard Buckeye. I have always felt that Joe Pa was the greatest thing that ever happened to the sport. It saddens me to see the harsh reaction people give the man. The fact of the matter is his graduate assistant already went back on what he said. He nows says "He thinks he might have heard something that may have resembled...

While I do wish more what have been done, what was provided to Paterno was not concrete fact, it was a speculation. Im not trying to absolve him of not doing more, but lets call a spade a spade, He was not the one who swept it under a rug, the AD and University President did.

I feel bad for the victim and cannot imagine what they will have to live with.

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Jen commented…

Yeah, no. By my estimation, there are many people out there who, while maybe not dedicating their lives to fighting child abuse specifically, are trying to do their part to make the world a better place. I personally have donated money to a charity that helps AIDS victims who are impoverished. I have participated in the Vagina Monologues at my college to raise money for local women's shelters. I have called the cops on my neighbors when I heard what I believed to be a domestic dispute. I have tried to give my friends good advice and a shoulder to cry on during tough times. I've told my parents I love them.

Could I do more? Sure. We all could. But to compare a (rich, white, powerful) man who knew about child abuse happening (multiple times, over a decade, by a guy who found a children's charity for pete's sake!) in his own locker room to "us" as a society...well, I don't find that so much insulting as just absurd. Esp. coming from a Christian publication that--let's face it--is cool with "judging" people who are gay, sexually active, pro-choice, etc. I mean, sure, maybe relevant readers and writers wouldn't come out and say "I'm judging you!", but based on the tone of many of the articles here, as progressive as Relevant tries (and I do respect the mag for that) to be, it's still the same old message of "I may not be perfect, but at least I'm not as bad as THAT guy!".

Sorry, King, I ain't buying your guilt-tripping article. I'm not Joe Pa, and the majority of people I know aren't. And those who ARE like Joe Pa need to be brought to justice on earth--let God deal with what happens after this world.

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Ani commented…

I'm really horrified to know that idly standing by while children are raped and abused is something that you can identify with, Mr. King. Have you ever met a survivor of rape or abuse? If you haven't, I sincerely hope you do not, not if this is the frankly offensive rhetoric you're spewing.

"We're all Joe Paterno"? No, we're not. I'm a young woman who was sexually assaulted. And in all honesty, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't as bad as it could have been, but that doesn't erase the weeks I spent not moving or speaking to anyone while trying to make sense of it. And I was lucky. I had counselors at my fingertips and friends who could help me process what had happened.

I cannot even begin to imagine what those children went through, being forced to process something much bigger and without the resources I had.

I know the Bible. I know all its ugly parts and all its sweet parts and I spent the majority of my lifetime wanting to join the Church. But here's the thing:

I am not Joe Paterno. If a child is being raped under my nose you can bet that I'm going to speak up, no matter what. And don't tell me that I'm missing the point because I'm not. You are. You're speaking like the ignorant and naive bystander that tries to tell a survivor how to heal. Tries to force a survivor when to forgive. And I'm sorry, sir, but until you've stood where those boys are standing, shut your mouth and pay a little more attention.

Rape isn't something that you can erase with a "whoops, sorry about that, dropped the ball." He didn't just drop the ball, he aided in the destruction of how many lives, how many childhoods?

Some of my closest friends are survivors and I thank whatever god is up there every single day that they even wake up and face a world full of abusers. So don't tell me, we are all Joe Paterno, because we are not, and to be quite frank with you, Christ would be ashamed that you will defend a man complicit in the rape of children in His name.

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mdmkh commented…

I think most people would have done what Joe Paterno did - do what was easy rather than what was right. Doing what was right meant believing something horrible about a colleague, contacting the police, and "dealing" with whatever unpleasantness ensued. Doing what was easy meant reporting the incident up the chain of command, hoping that those people would handle it and any unpleasantness that might come, & then doing his best not to think any more of the situation. His actions made him a hipocrite in light of howhe was presented as both coach & teacher. I believe his actions made him completely & sadlyhuman.I suspect that many of us actively overlook instances of abuse, injustice, &neglect becauseacknowledging them would meana callto actionwhich would demand toomuch of us & our time. It might demand a risk to a relationship, a risk toour physical selves, or a demand on our time or resources. Many of us, in our outrage (justified though it might be), hold ourselves apart from Joe Paterno as though we might never be capable of his actions (or inaction in this case). It seems to me that this attitude is nothing more than hubris on the greatest scale. It suits us to believe that "I would have done the right thing". And yet, in so many instances, the right thing never comes close to happening. If the right thing were so easy how do we explain the murder of millions of Jews in Europe or Stalin'spograms in Russia?Those are the big examples of course, but they started as small campaigns where people looked the other way because it was "easy".

I don't thinkJoseph Paterno is hero. But then, I'm not one forhaving heros I don't know.And I neverknew JoPa. I think he was admirable for what he tried to achieve at Penn State in terms of coaching & preaching academic acheivement. I think he should have done so much more when it counted for something other than football. Do I think Iwould have done better? I hope so. But who knows...I've never been in that situation. And I think that's the point of the article. Be disappointed, be upset, be angry, and be outraged with Joseph Paterno. But don'tforget to be humble, because "there but for the grace of God go I". And we may allbe so challenged in our lives and we should all hope and pray that we have the courage & conviction that Joseph Paterno did not have when it counted most. And he was a man that many believed had both in spades.

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Jen commented…

I wonder if the reason so many Christians have gone on the defensive about the whole Penn State scandal is due to the fact that conservative Christianity is traditionally very paternalistic. So when paternalism (JoePa being the ultimate supposedly benevolent father figure) fails them, they feel they must direct attention away from the true issue--which is that paternalism, even paternalism with good intentions, needs to be seriously questioned and challenged.

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